1992 - 1995 NZL-32 America's Cup Challenge

In yachting, as in most sports, there is lively debate over which of its various disciplines represents the absolute summit of achievement. There would probably be general agreement that the major yachting peaks include the America's Cup, the Whitbread Round the World Race - now the Volvo Ocean Race - the Jules Verne Trophy, the Vendee Globe solo round the world race, once but no longer the Admiral's Cup and the Olympic Games.

How they stack up against each other is where arguments will rage. But, for its history, prestige and general public recognition, the America's Cup always ranks at or near the top. Despite all that, Peter Blake became a somewhat reluctant devotee of the Cup. For him, bluewater racing held the most attraction. He loved the classic challenge of man against the elements, the test of seamanship and endurance and the sense of adventure that goes with major ocean passages. He recognised the skill, commitment and expertise that surround the America's Cup, but he disliked its claustrophobic politics and the constant battles over rules and interpretation and one-upmanship that is so much part of the Cup game.

His first hands-on experience of the America's Cup came in 1992 and did little to change his view of it. At the urging of Douglas Myers, who had a considerable investment in the New Zealand Challenge through his Steinlager sponsorship, Blake agreed to join the team in San Diego. His appointment was late in the piece, however, by which time the camp was severely divided. Blake was in an invidious position, with little real authority to change a situation where the factions were well entrenched.

To make matters worse, the campaign unraveled in a bitter and protracted war of attrition in the protest room over the use of a bowsprit on New Zealand's NZL-20 - an obscurecassis bellitypical of the fine-print arguments that thrive in a Cup community heavily populated by lawyers.

"In the past it has been full of mystique and dirty tricks, of political manoeuvring and espionage. But peel away the cloak and dagger stuff and it is another yacht race."

Sir Peter Blake

Ever loyal to his patrons and backers, Blake served his time and did his best. But it would have come as no surprise if he vowed 'Never Again' and - contrary to his habit of reversing frequent vows never to race around the world again - actually stuck to his resolve. Instead, like many other Cup suitors, he found himself drawn back in its quest.

After the disappointment of 1992, Sir Michael Fay and his partner David Richwhite decided three Cup attempts were enough and they bowed out. This left a void and Blake would have to find the $NZ30 million of sponsorship to cover the next one.

At this point, Team New Zealand had no money so Blake even had to pay the $US75,000 entry fee. Then there was the issue of finding a sailing club through which to challenge. Despite competition for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron (RNZYS) between Blake and Chris Dickson who was also mounted a challenge, the Squadron finally chose Blake.

The next task involved finding a skipper. Determined not to make the same structural errors as 1992, it was crucial that the team made the right call. Team New Zealand named Russell Coutts as skipper, recognising him as a smart, driven leader who would add value to the team.

The next addition was Schnackenberg who had a lot of match racing experience. With Blake away for the first part of 1993 with the Jules Verne Trophy and Coutts based in San Diego due to match racing commitments, communication was crucial. Hence the team was built to have good dynamics and work well together.

Blake understood that in order to win there were 3 key elements that Team New Zealand had to focus on: designing a better boat, building a better boat, and sailing it better. The team was built to match these requirements, getting as much knowledge and expertise on board as possible.

To do this, Blake organised the team in the most efficient way naming heads of departments, whose responsibility it would be to meet the agreed objectives within the budget. This was very much a sailor-driven campaign with Ross Blackman (administration), Russell Coutts (sailing), Tim Gurr (boat-building and shore team), Tom Schnackenberg (design and testing), Alan Sefton (communications) and Steve Wilson (rigs) (Sefton, 2004). A system of weekly progress meetings and regular ‘full family’ meetings with sponsors and contractors would ensure that a high level of communication was maintained within in the team.

Ironically, having less of budget was one of the factors that played well into New Zealand’s hands. It meant that close communication had to be kept, creating a stronger team. Most importantly it meant that all decisions taken had to be well-thought-through and smart.

Two of the biggest decisions made throughout the campaign were to build two boats and to make Blake a crew member (Sefton, 2004). NZL 32 otherwise known as Black Magic 1 and NZL 38 (Black Magic 2) was also constructed. Both boats were fast with NZL 38 being designed slightly closer to the rest of the fleet, but ultimately Black Magic 1 was the faster all-round boat.

NZL 38 was used for the first four round robins if the regatta and was then retired undefeated after 24 races. NZL 32 was not to make her debut until the semi-finals. This caused much confusion for Team New Zealand’s opponents who believed that NZL 32 was the slower of the two boats.

For every race so far, Blake had been present on board wearing his red socks which were gifted to him by his wife, Pippa. As a tradition, Pippa would give Peter a different pair of socks every Christmas Eve before every big event. In 1994, the socks were red and had been worn during every one of Team New Zealand’s winning races on both NZL 38 and NZL 32. So when the team lost their first race (Race 4 of the Louis Vuitton Cup) and Peter was not on board due to injury, it became clear that the absence of the ‘Lucky Red Socks’ was the reason for this.

His red socks were cleverly turned into a marketing ploy which saw the whole country buying Blake’s lucky red socks, placing real meaning on the country’s support. The money from the sales went straight into the campaign, giving Team New Zealand a well-needed injection of $100,000. This was put towards refurbishing sails and equipment for the final round of the America’s Cup.

In the final, Black Magic faced off against America’s Dennis Conner and their boat Young America. In an appropriate conclusion to an incredible America’s Cup campaign, Team New Zealand thrashed her opponent 5-0, winning each race by a considerable margin. Commentator Peter Montgomery famously remarked: "The America's Cup is now New Zealand's cup."

On Saturday, 13th May, 1995 which was Mothering Sunday in New Zealand, Black Magic crossed the finish line and made sailing history, beginning one of New Zealand’s biggest parties when the cup was brought to New Zealand for the first time.

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Experience and compatibility were vital in this, but the will to win was paramount. The entire team, whether on the boat or shore-based, were all highly skilled and motivated. And they all knew that victory at this level depended on a total effort. There were no small jobs; they were all important. A second's gain in a mile over the 20-mile course was enough to win. ”